Jordyn Wieber on 'entering a season of gratitude' ahead of 2021 NCAA gymnastics kick off

The Olympic gymnastics champion turned collegiate head coach on finding her coaching philosophy and turning the page on 2020.

By Scott Bregman

When Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Jordyn Wieber was working her way to becoming one the world’s best gymnasts, she swore she’d never coach gymnastics.

“I remember saying specifically that I didn't want to be a coach all throughout my career because I kind of justified it like I had been in the gym my whole life,” she recalled in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel last month.

And yet, the 25-year-old, who took the World all-around title in 2011 before helping her ‘Fierce Five’ teammates claim Team USA’s first Olympic team gold medal on foreign soil, now finds herself doing exactly that as the University of Arkansas women's gymnastics head coach.

Wieber says her stint as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) opened her eyes that coaching – especially at the collegiate level – could be about so much more than teaching cartwheels and perfecting daring acrobatics.

“What you get to do as a college coach is so much bigger than just gymnastics. It's much bigger than just coaching technique and being in the gym every day,” said Wieber. “It's really about finding those parallels between gymnastics and life for the student athletes and teaching them things about leadership and taking ownership of the things that that they do in their life.”

An individual approach

Wieber’s belief that college coaching goes beyond the field of play was quickly put into action. When she was announced as Arkansas’ head coach in late April 2019, Wieber knew the first thing she had to do once she arrived in Fayetteville.

“I knew that the relationships piece was going to be huge,” she said. “So the first thing I did when I got here was meet the team, have them all in for individual meetings and start kind of building those relationships.”

She has also built her coaching stuff, which includes 2016 Olympian Chris Brooks and Catelyn Orel. Though she and her two assistant coaches are among the youngest in the NCAA, she says that can work to her advantage.

“We're younger, but we're probably the most passionate and the most excited about what we get to do every day,” Wieber said.

Plus, despite her age, the Olympic champion has seen and done almost everything you can in the sport, both good and bad. That experience is something she has leaned into, but also acknowledges isn’t a quick fix for every issue facing the young women she coaches.

“I always say I think I went through just about everything that you could go through… in the sport,” said Wieber. “I think being able to go through that and overcome it and build the resilience that it took to overcome it is what really helps me on a daily basis as a coach.”

“Most of the time I can look at them and say, you know what, I've been where you've been,” Wieber continued. “I quickly learned when I started coaching that what worked for me… probably works for one out of my sixteen athletes. So I very quickly learned that every athlete thinks differently and needs different things.”

It's part of Wieber's coaching philosophy that she says is a balance between high expectations and personal growth.

"I like to coach them as people first and then as athletes second," she explained. "I think when you do it that way, you get so much more out of the athletes because of the difference between being motivated versus inspired and any team, any athlete can be motivated on a daily basis.

"But how many teams and how many athletes are inspired on a daily basis and what inspires you? What's your why?" Wieber continued as she explained how she approaches her role as a coach. "First, you've got to figure that out and then how do you try to get your teammates in on that? How can you inspire other people rather than just focusing on being inspired yourself."

A season of gratitude

One thing inspiring many of her athletes this year is a sense of unfinished business.

Wieber’s first season was marred by the sports shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which ended her sport just before the conference and post-season events were scheduled to take place.

“It was hard, especially for our seniors,” admitted Wieber. “I think my heart was hurting the most for them, especially because we had a couple of seniors that just love gymnastics.”

Adding, “I tried to give the team an opportunity to just process it and feel the emotions and the grief, because that's really what it was. I think everyone's kind of feeling that on a different level right now.”

The team shifted focus as quickly as they could, the head coach says. She hopes their disappointment will fuel them as they head into their 2021 season, which is set to begin on 9 January against Louisiana State University.

In Zoom calls over the summer, Wieber debriefed with her team, pushing them to think about how to use their circumstances as a “springboard to what we’re going to do as a team.”

“One of them said that they feel like they're entering a season of gratitude in 2021, which I thought was huge,” said Wieber.

That season of gratitude will be like none before with Wieber saying she expects to have to adjust on the fly as the coronavirus situation continues to unfold.

But she thinks gymnastics has prepared her team to do just that.

“The one metaphor I keep using is things are constantly changing,” said Wieber, “and just like in gymnastics, when you do a release move on bars in the air, depending on whether you're going to be close or far from the bar, you have to make adjustments. You have to be ready to adjust on the fly.

“I think that's a great life lesson because most times things don't go as planned. You've got to be able to adjust and be flexible. And I think that's one of the bigger life lessons they're learning through this year.” - Jordyn Wieber